Phillips Academy Issues More Homework Than Peer Schools

Phillips Academy students spend at least 40 minutes longer per night on homework than do students at their peer schools, according to the Pace of Life Committee’s recent report. Administrators attribute the 200 extra minutes of homework per week to the Academy’s philosophy of independent study, reduced emphasis on class time and shorter school year. Dean of Studies Vincent Avery said that the Academy also has the second or third highest total instructional time – the combination of class time and homework – of its peer schools. “Andover has the second shortest school year, spends less time in the classroom and has more homework than most,” Dean Avery wrote in an e-mail. He said the cause for this may be because “we want to give our students more independence in (and expect them to take more responsibility for) their learning.” Head of School Barbara Landis Chase said that the Academy’s homework-heavy teaching style “has been a long tradition, perhaps stemming from a sense of wanting to instill independent work.” She added, “We will have to decide if this is what we want to continue to do.” To cut down on homework, the Pace of Life Committee compared calendars for the 2002-2003 school year and concluded that class weeks must be added to the Academy’s calendar. The Committee report stated, “We know that with the exception of the Groton School, Phillips Academy has the fewest number of weeks of class time of any of our comparable schools. At the same time, we assign significantly more homework.” Dean Avery added, “We have the fewest class days of any school, and cramming a comparable program into a much smaller box is not an easy task.” At the Academy, the number of class days varies between 136 and 142 days each year, depending on the timing of Labor Day. This year, the Academy is in session for 142 school days, but fewer are scheduled for next year. Phillips Exeter and Choate Rosemary-Hall are in school for the same number of weeks but have more class days because of weekly Saturday classes. Last October, the Pace of Life Committee presented a calendar with more class days and three equal terms, but the proposal was vetoed by a faculty vote. The Committee’s recently issued report recommends the creation of a calendar committee to readdress the topic. “Our recommendations are aimed at relieving pace of life problems while protecting the academic program,” Pace of Life Committee Chair Dr. Max Alovisetti said. Dean Avery said that the Academy’s academic approach is unique because more emphasis is placed on individual learning than on time spent in class. While this strategy works well for older students, Dean Avery says that younger students benefit more from time with an instructor. As recommended by the Committee, the school is considering ways to shift the focus of lower-level courses from homework to class work. It is nearly impossible to measure the exact amount of homework assigned by a school, as students take on varying degrees of rigor in their course loads. Accordingly, the Committee had difficulty explaining how they calculated that Andover students have 40 more minutes of homework than its peer schools, aside from comparing suggested amounts. The Phillips Academy Blue Book recommends nine hours of class time and homework per week for lower-level and required courses and allows higher-level electives to use more time. Exeter limits instructional time per course to between eight and eight and a half hours per week. Exeter’s rule book explicitly states that upper-level classes which require more course hours must reduce the amount of assigned homework. Most classes at Exeter meet four times during the course of a six day week, further distributing the workload. Groton recommends that each class assign 20 to 30 minutes of homework to students in the eighth and ninth grades and 40 minutes to older students. Most students take six classes, and most weeks include Saturday classes. Groton’s Dean of Students , Fred Beams, said that his school counters the stressful pace of life by having a surprise holiday, a scheduled skip day, and an added three-day weekend each term. “We try to pace the terms a little bit and help with the stress of six-day weeks,” Dean Beams said. “We are conscious that students do need some hang time.” Choate recommends six and a half to seven and a half hours of instructional time per week per course. Teachers are discouraged from assigning homework over long weekends and are not allowed to schedule tests and papers on the first day of classes after a three-day weekend. The Academy’s Pace of Life Committee based its figures on comparisons with Choate, Deerfield, Exeter, Groton, Hill, Lawrenceville, Loomis-Chaffee, Milton, Northfield Mount Hermon, St. Paul’s and Stoneleigh-Burnham.